Helping Children to Stop Thumb-Sucking

AUTHOR: JOSS GOULDEN
DATE PUBLISHED: 3 May 2024

It is really common for children to suck their thumbs and for parents to find it frustrating to know how to support them when we want them to stop. In authoritarian parenting styles, children might be punished or shamed into stopping. In more permissive parenting styles, children might just be left to suck their thumb for as long as they want. In aware parenting, children can be supported to stop in ways that are deeply loving and respectful and which address the cause of the thumb sucking, not just the behaviour. 

Why do children suck their thumbs?

There are several reasons why children develop this habit. One is that they are exploring their body but it is frequently also used as what we call in Aware Parenting, a control pattern. This is a behaviour that children use in order to suppress feelings. If our children have accumulated feelings (and all children have big feelings often) and we are not able to listen and support them to release their feelings, they wisely develop patterns of behaviour in order to protect themselves from pain of the feelings inside. 

It is so normal that we are not able to listen to all the feelings or at times have been feeding or rocking or distracting our children as babies when they had feelings to share. But when we do this, it doesn't make the feelings go away. Instead the feelings stay in their body and they need to do things in order to keep the feelings held in there. Sucking on fingers and thumb are a powerful way to do this. 

So how do we know if the thumb sucking is a control pattern? 

We look for these signs:

  • When children are repeatedly sucking their thumb
  • If they are doing it a lot with urgency 
  • If they are doing it at times when they are very tired so their feelings are closer to the surface 
  • If they are doing it when they hurt themselves 
  • If they seem zoned out or disconnected from us when doing it

Often we might go into judgement of ourselves and our children about this. We might be wondering why they have accumulated feelings and why they are needing to suppress, even though we are often offering them awareness and presence. Perhaps we might tell ourselves that we have done something wrong, or that they are deliberately thumb sucking and should be able to release feelings with us instead. If this is you, I am sending you love and would love to offer you deep compassion about these control patterns. I wonder if it is helpful to remember again that all of our children have accumulated feelings, no matter how devoted and aware we have been as parents and no matter how much listening to feelings and attachment play we have offered them. My children have control patterns (and so do I) and that's after 18 years of Aware Parenting. It is so normal and I often imagine that our children's grand-children may be the first generation of children who might not need control patterns after 3 - 4 generations of aware parenting.

So how can we help them in these moments? We need to focus on 2 things - 1 is supporting ourselves and the other is supporting our children. 

Supporting Ourselves.

A helpful place to start is by noticing what you are telling yourself when you see your child sucking their fingers or thumb and just pause for a moment and offer yourself some love and appreciation in that moment.  That might be putting your hand on your heart and closing your eyes and saying "It's so hard to see them sucking their thumb. I so wish they didn't have any accumulated feelings and I so wish they didn't feel the need to suppress. This is so hard." If we find ourselves guilting or shaming or judging ourselves, we can offer ourselves more unconditional love and say"I am not willing to guilt or shame myself right now. I am instead learning to appreciate the control pattern and learn to feel gratitude for my wise wise children finding ways to support themselves when things feel overwhelming for them".  Can you do some journalling of all the harsh things you are feeling about yourself and them when you see them sucking, and can you then go back and explore what you have written and ask yourself if each one is really true? 

When we start with this step, it supports us back to compassion, for ourselves, our child, the thumb sucking. The compassion is what helps to offer loving warmth and connection, which is the most powerful gift for our children when they are using control patterns. As Marion Rose says so brilliantly in her book I'm Here and I'm Listening, "The antidote to suppression and dissociation is warm connection. One way we can remember this is to think of freezing, which is another word for dissociation. When we meet the freeze with emotional warmth, it can melt into water, which we can like into emotions, feelings – in – motion, which often includes tears and crying, but can also show up as raging and tantrums” 

If you find you are stuck in some feelings or judgements, some frustration and upset towards your child, another thing that can support you back to compassion and warmth, is imagining your child's perspective in that moment. Perhaps you might imagine them saying "Oh mum, I have so many big feelings at the moment and I just can't go into them. Sucking my thumb is really helping me at the moment. I know you would like me to stop and I won't need to do this forever. I will share my feelings with you when you have capacity to really listen." Perhaps it might help to start to cultivate an attitude of gratitude towards the CP rather than judgement, remembering all the times you weren't safe to express feelings and found ways to protect yourself at that time. Perhaps it might help to remember that all humans have control patterns and they are wonderful ways that we keep ourselves safe. 

Another thing that is helpful for us to reflect on is what we might be making this mean about ourselves. Perhaps we are telling ourselves that we are not doing aware parenting properly or that we aren't supporting our children to release and cry because we have done something wrong which has stopped them from feeling safe. So it is so often immensely helpful for us to be getting listening for ourselves. Another powerful quote from Marion’s book is “ If we are wanting to be able to feel our feelings and express them in healing ways, we generally need to experience loving presents, empathy and connection from someone who is able to be present in their body while they listen to our feelings”. The more of this we receive, the more we are able to be present in our body while we listen to our children, and our children will sense that.

Supporting our Children:

In the moment of thumb sucking:

Aletha Solter (the founder of Aware Parenting) recommends that we don't pull the thumb out of a child's mouth and that we do not comment on it either. Children will experience that as being overpowered and criticised. We can't force our child to feel safe enough to cry and release and if we are trying to force them to stop sucking or being harsh or critical to them about it, they will definitely not feel safe to release the feelings that are underneath the habit.

I sucked my thumb as a child and had a comfort blanket that I couldn't bear to be apart from. As was common in those days, my parents painted horrible tasting liquid on my thumb (designed to stop nail biting) when I was older and still thumb-sucking, to try to help me to stop. But the thing with control patterns is that, if we make a child wrong for doing something or punish them, we do not provide them with the safety and love and space they need to be able to offload their feelings and stop needing to use the control pattern. In my case, I did stop thumb sucking eventually but then started biting my nails instead, because my parents didn't understand about the need to listen to feelings, so the feelings that were driving my thumb sucking were all still there and needed something else to hold them in. I felt judged and blamed for doing it and used to do it in secret so that it wouldn't be commented on. I didn't feel emotionally safe and I didn't feel unconditionally loved.

Another central aspect of aware parenting is offering our children the balance of attention. This means that we are offering emotional safety AND a reminder from the past to reconnect with the feelings from the past stressful experiences, whilst they experience a deep sense of emotional safety in the present.  So then our child can experience the balance of attention to be able to release feelings. We need to be supporting our children to feel safe, connected and surrounded by our emotional presence and reminded in some way of the source of the feelings. So how to do we offer this? 

  • Connection and safety - eye contact, tone of voice, body presence. 
  • Tending to ourselves as mentioned above - our internal dialogue to ensure we aren't judging ourselves or them, and instead coming back to compassion; our feelings and needs in the present moment to ensure we aren't feeling frustrated or resentful; and our feelings from our past - bringing awareness to our feelings of powerlessness or overwhelm or fear that might be coming up. We need to support ourselves to get to a place where we are so really willing to listen to all their big feelings, which, as Marion Rose says, has a very different quality to the urgency of wanting them to cry.
  • Tuning in to see if we are dissociated or distracted and, if so, offering ourselves compassion and checking in to see if we have capacity right now to be supporting them at this moment. Asking ourselves are we really willing to listen to their feelings now? Sometimes the answer to that is no, especially if we are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted and in need of support ourselves. In those moments, can you let go and reassure yourself that the thumb sucking will support them until a time when you are willing to listen? 
  • Supporting them to connect with the painful feelings and be reminded in some way of the past stressful experiences. 

Offering Attachment play is really helpful, both in the moment of thumb sucking and more generally. Doing regular special time, where they get your uninterrupted presence and love while you follow their lead for a set period of time will give your child the sense that you want to be with them and connect with them. Laughter is also very powerful, both to release feelings and stress and to build connection and safety. It might be you trying to suck her thumb, it might be you sucking your thumb, it might just be making silly noises or giving them snuggling kisses, pulling the thumb out of your mouth and making a big popping sound, It might be pretending that your thumb taste of boogies. But anything that brings laughter will support her to release some feelings and to be thumb sucking less. If you are receiving listening and support yourself, you will have more capacity for a play.

Sometimes during play when they have stopped sucking the thumb, our children will start to cry. Listening to feelings, both in the moment and at other times too, will be very helpful to lessen the need for the control pattern. Sometimes, once the thumb is out of their mouth, we might gently and lovingly hold their hand and offer a loving limit - "Sweetheart, I see that you want to suck your thumb and I am right here to give you so much love. I am not willing for you to do that now because I don't think it's the most helpful thing for you at the moment. I am here and listening". And then we hold heart space for them to have a big cry. If they are really desperate to get their thumb back in their mouth, we might go back to offering play, or words of empathy and connection. We don't want to over-power them so we don't want to keep holding it. If we find ourselves becoming frustrated or annoyed, again we can see that as an invitation to get more listening and support for ourselves and then come back to the play, listening, connection, balance of safety, loving limits dance again another time. 

Helping them more generally:

The more we are supporting them more generally with loving listening and play, the more in balance they are the less they will need to suppress feelings. So finding times when we might be inadvertently suppressing feelings or missing opportunities to bring in loving limits or offering extra attachment play to support a deeper sense of connection and safety, will all help. 

And again, as always with aware parenting, the most important thing in this is getting listening for us and making sure that we are getting as many of our own needs met as possible. When we get support and have space to reflect, we are able to increase our capacity and then our children feel more spaciousness to express a larger amount of their feelings. This in turn reduces their need for control patterns and to suppress feelings. 

This is often something that people practicing aware parenting find very difficult, so I am sending you so much love if this is something you are currently challenged by. If you would like support with this process, I am here for you.

Your parenting coach and mentor

About Joss Goulden

I am a trauma-informed Parenting Coach and a Level 2 Aware Parenting instructor, certified with the Aware Parenting Institute. I have been practising Aware Parenting for 17 years and am the mother of 2 children, aged 19 and 17.

I am also passionate about Homeschooling and Natural Learning. I have homeschooled my 2 children and I have been supporting families with Homeschooling and Natural Learning for many years.
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I am so passionate about sharing this beautiful approach with parents. I believe that Aware Parenting is THE solution for so many of the challenges facing the world. - Joss Goulden, Aware Parenting Instructor
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